Sound Advice: Are Apple’s Free EarPods Really That Bad?

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I’ve recently misplaced a pair of decent Klipsch earphones. As I’m partial to using over-ear headphones most of the time, I haven’t managed to justify a replacement yet. As a stop-gap, I’ve been reduced to relying on one of the seven or so pairs of Apple EarPods I have lying around the house whenever I want to listen to music at the gym.

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The logic here is that Apple’s own free earphones have a reputation being utter garbage, so if I trash them at the gym who cares — right? I’ve basically accrued enough pairs for virtually every bag I own anyway!

But maybe I’m being too harsh on the pearly white fashion accessories?

EarPods Have Their Uses

Perhaps the best thing about Apple’s EarPods is that they’re free with any mobile device purchased — that includes all models of iPhone, iPad, and the entire iPod range. The revised the design was introduced in 2012, so if you’ve changed your iPhone a few times since then, bought a new iPad, and received an iPod for Christmas Should You Buy Apple's Best iPod Touch Ever? Should You Buy Apple's Best iPod Touch Ever? The new sixth generation iPod Touch is the best iPod Apple has ever made, but it suffers from one fatal flaw: nobody actually needs one. Read More , you probably have a few pairs floating around in a drawer by now.


They come in a hard case for safe storage; are equipped with a remote for volume, phone calls, and Siri; and the 3.5mm stereo jack is thin enough to comfortably fit pretty much any case you can find. Furthermore, they’re covered by Apple’s basic warranty and AppleCare. If anything, they’re useful in a pinch, which is exactly why I found myself using them.

Sound Quality

I hadn’t used a pair of Apple earphones since my iPhone 4 days, when Apple was using some of the nastiest sounding drivers known to man. Fortunately, the post-2012 versions are noticeably better than they used to be. The treble is surprisingly punchy, there’s an unexpected richness to the bass that doesn’t overpower the sound, and the overall sound produced compared to previous bundled accessories is pretty good.

However, the mid-range is weak — a problem that’s exacerbated by a design that doesn’t employ any passive sound isolation. There’s no silicon earbuds to create a tight seal between your ear and the bud, which means the midrange is largely washed out by whatever’s happening around you. As a result, they’re also incredibly leaky — not ideal for quiet environments, or listening to loud music in public.


Despite the somewhat flawed design — and this is subjective, not everyone likes to feel “plugged in” — the response from Apple’s EarPods is surprisingly flat. They don’t fall into bass-heavy Beats by Dre territory, and they hold up well when listening to a variety of musical styles. Apple doesn’t design its products for any one target market, so it makes sense that their earphones should be adaptable.

When considering the EarPods for what they are — free bundled accessories — you could even describe sound quality as good. This is relative of course, and doesn’t hold up so well when you consider that Apple sells replacements for $29 (more on this later).

Comfort & Design

Apple’s EarPods are designed to sit loosely in your ear, rather than forming a seal for a tighter fit. The smooth plastic design is largely inoffensive — they’re not quite uncomfortable, but if you’re used to sound isolating silicon buds, then they tend to always feel like they don’t quite fit properly. Just like the quality of sound produced, when compared to the pre-2012 disc-shaped design, these represent a massive improvement.

One of the problems presented by the design is that EarPods tend to move around a lot. They’ll slip out of place in your ear, which negatively affects sound quality, and they tend to fall out on a regular basis which means you have to keep putting them back in all the time.


It’s a lot worse if you want to use your EarPods while moving around a lot — running, cycling, and even a brisk walk can cause them to move around. One saving grace of the design is that they don’t get caught on your ear if you yank them out suddenly, which will probably result in a longer life span. The use of anti-tangle rubber is a nice touch, but like every other pair of anti-tangle earphones you’ve ever owned, you’ll still spend time untangling them when you pull them out of your pocket.

Durability & Build Quality

Apple’s old iPod headphones (below) were known for their poor build quality, and EarPods do little to buck the trend. The design still feels flimsy, and the materials very soft. The areas where the cable joins the earbuds, remote, and stereo jack still represent a weak point, and there’s little to stop it from doubling back on itself given a small amount of force. Over time, this sort of wear will result in a loose connection, crackling, and eventually total failure.

There’s a lot of flex in the plastic used for the remote control, and once you’ve broken this, there’s little to protect the wire within. It’s hardly surprising then that EarPods have maintained their predecessor’s reputation of dying suddenly. For free, it’s probably to be expected, but for $29 in Apple retail stores, they should be better. At least you get a new pair with every purchase, I suppose?


One way you can mitigate damage is by storing them properly. All EarPods come with a hard case that’s surprisingly robust and should protect your earbuds from damage, provided you remember to use it. We’ve previously written about bad practices to avoid to extend the life of headphones Here's Why Your Headphones Keep Breaking (And What You Can Do) Here's Why Your Headphones Keep Breaking (And What You Can Do) How long do your headphones last? If they're breaking too quickly, here's why and what you can do to prolong their lifespan. Read More , and much of this advice applies to in-ear models as well.

Should your EarPods break, you may not realize it, but they’re subject to the same warranty conditions as everything else that came in the box (be it an iPhone, iPad, or even your Lightning cable). In the US, this limited warranty extends for one year, and doubles to two years in the EU or Australia. Got AppleCare? You get three years of coverage on your accessories AppleCare Warranty: What Are Your Options and Is It Worth It? AppleCare Warranty: What Are Your Options and Is It Worth It? AppleCare+ protects your Apple device, but is it worth the cost? Here's what AppleCare+ offers and whether you should get it. Read More — so use it!

These warranties only cover manufacturer defects, rather than accidental damage, but a Genius bar appointment costs nothing, and fraying chargers When to Throw Away Your Fraying Cables & Phone Chargers When to Throw Away Your Fraying Cables & Phone Chargers Let's cut to the chase here — in a benevolent ploy we only really want you to read this article for one reason: to throw away those shredded, damaged chargers NOW. Read More are often replaced by staff free of charge. You might be surprised as to what Apple considers a manufacturer defect.

Value for Money?

For free, Apple’s EarPods represent excellent value for money. When you take their resale value into account, the opposite is true. I don’t think I’d ever recommend anyone go out and purchase a new pair of Apple EarPods to replace a pair that have broken (don’t forget your warranty either).


If you want a cheap pair of headphones and you’re not bothered about the best sound quality, or you tend to break your earphones all the time and thus can’t afford to spend very much money on them, you can spend less and get more for your money. You could get earphones that are cheap but use passive noise isolation (a tight silicon rubber fit in your ear) which won’t let as much ambient sound in or wash out the mid-range to the same degree.

A few years ago, I tested a cheap pair of earphones designed by teenagers Sacred Sound Audio Infinity One Review and Giveaway Sacred Sound Audio Infinity One Review and Giveaway It's refreshing to see the Infinity One, a pair of $25 earphones that don't suck, and far more interesting to hear that they are the work of two young teenage brothers. Read More  that cost less, sound better, are made of metal, and still work (I just can’t find them, or else I’d never have turned to EarPods in the first place). I’d recommend having a read of The Wirecutter’s best budget earphone guide, which examines a large number of budget options to find those that demonstrate the best sound and best value for money, including an old-school non-isolating pair too.

Current recommendations include the Brainwavz Delta and Panasonic ErgoFit (around $10), but the whole list is worth a look. If you want to spend a little more, head to a local headphone shop (if you can find one) and speak to the staff. They’ll ask you what you want them for, what your budget is, what sort of music you listen to, and even offer you a few different pairs to try.

Not Bad for Free

EarPods sound okay, but they won’t knock your socks off. They’re distinctly inoffensive, while at the same time sounding overpriced at $29. Apple’s design is flawed in terms of ambient noise and sound leakage, and build quality still leaves a lot to be desired. Fortunately there are plenty of cheaper alternatives available if you need budget earphones.

The one saving grace is that they’re free and make a great backup pair when push comes to shove. If you rarely use earphones, don’t listen to music on the go, or just need a fuss-free handsfree solution for taking phone calls, they’ll do the job. And to be fair, there are a few other nifty things your Apple EarPods can do 4 Nifty Things Your Apple EarPods Headphones Can Do 4 Nifty Things Your Apple EarPods Headphones Can Do The Apple EarPods that come with your iPhone actually have a lot of use. Here's everything you can do with your iPhone headphones. Read More .

Image credits: Apple EarPod (othree)Earpods (Gadgetmac // Nest Photo)

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  1. Tonald
    April 15, 2019 at 3:08 am

    Most horribly designed piece of work by apple to date. We are going on 10 years and they are still supplying these pieces of garbage. They catch on your clothes and fall out of your ears. They are bad to put it simply.

  2. Dan W
    May 29, 2017 at 5:15 pm

    I'm in the same camp as Robert In SF -- send me your unwanted Ear Pods! Silicone earbuds don't work for me -- my ear canals get insanely itchy after an hour. I have smaller ear canal openings and most earbuds make my ears sore after a short while regardless of the material. And I don't like being sealed off from the world, especially when walking around or at work -- I need to be able to hear what's going on around me. I've found that the Apple Ear Pods stay in my ear really well and don't make my ears sore, even wearing them all day. They don't fall out as long as the cable doesn't get yanked. Apple seems to have struck the right balance with their hard plastic design and a universal fit. I purchased a pair of hifi Etymotic earbuds a few years ago, and I think the Earpods have a better response. I've tried other wireless and wired earphones and I always go back to the EarPods. Also, I've tried a few other wired and wireless earphones, and it's hard to find one that has a good enough quality microphone, and none as far as I know have remote functionality.

    • Alex
      September 13, 2017 at 1:29 am

      They are total crap. Don't stay in my ears just sitting. Nothing on my SE can get the volume to above a whisper.

  3. John
    March 27, 2017 at 2:51 am

    iPads do not come with earpods, they only come with the adapter and lightning to usb cable.

  4. Derek Walsh
    August 7, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    I don't use Apple earphones myself, but from my experiences on public transport, they appear to be inordinately leaky.

    • Tim Brookes
      August 9, 2016 at 1:37 am

      I'd agree with this assessment, but isn't this just a trait of all non-sealed earphones?

      I tested a pair of Bluetooth noise cancelling over-ear headphones recently, and they were incredibly leaky too...

      • Derek Walsh
        August 9, 2016 at 9:23 am

        Could be. Perhaps it just seems to be an issue with Apple earphones because they're so common.

        • Ryan Williams
          February 20, 2017 at 12:06 pm

          Are you guys sure those are EarPods? Being leaky is something I'm conscious of and want to avoid, and even at relatively high volumes I can't hear much of anything when I do the old 'play music and gently press the bud against my arm' test — or when they're dangling in the air.

          The old EarBuds were definitely leaky though.

        • Tim Brookes
          February 21, 2017 at 1:01 am

          Yeah they're leaky alright. They never really "seal" as they're not that fitted, so the earbud-against-the-arm test isn't really an accurate test. I guess it also depends on what you listen to. Punchy electronic beats are very noticeable, for example.

  5. Destiny
    August 7, 2016 at 3:30 am

    I am not sure we get a headphone when we purchase an iPad.

    • Tim Brookes
      August 9, 2016 at 1:32 am

      Is that so? I can't remember as it's been a while since I got my iPad, but I could have sworn I got a pair. Still wondering how I managed to get so many pairs...

      • Ryan Williams
        February 20, 2017 at 12:01 pm

        Can confirm you don't get them with any iPads since the Air 2, not sure about previous models.

        • Tim Brookes
          February 21, 2017 at 12:55 am

          Thanks for letting me know... not sure how I've amassed so many pairs over the years.

  6. Anonymous
    August 6, 2016 at 12:27 am

    If you want ear buds just to hear stuff, you can pick up a pair off of ebay for a buck or less plus free shipping.

  7. Anonymous
    August 5, 2016 at 7:58 pm

    If you just want ear plugs to listen to stuff, I would suggest checking out ebay. You can get a basic pair for a buck or less and free shipping. Probably the same as the 10$ sets you get at a box store.

  8. Robert in SF
    August 5, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    If anyone doesn't want their earpods, from their new iDevice, I will take them off their hands.
    I can't stand the in-ear headsets that have the silicone/rubber pads that tend to seal off you canal.

    I mostly listen to audiobooks and podcasts, an occasionally a movie or TV show, and just prefer the fit and feel of the Earpods since the sound quality is not paramount for those types of media.

    Let me know if you want to donate your earpods, and we'll connect. :) I'll take them off your hands, no charge!


    • Tim Brookes
      August 9, 2016 at 1:34 am

      Hey Robert,

      I hear the Sennheiser MX 365 are pretty good for those who prefer the traditional style headphone that don't seal your ear canal shut: